Congress, Obama and ISIS

Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a request by President Obama to arm and equip the moderate Syrian rebels. The vote, which crossed partisan lines, was 273 to 156. Those republicans who opposed the measure thought it did not go far enough. Those Democrats who opposed the measure worried it went too far. There is no Goldilocks solution here. Still, the House vote was correct.

First, the caveats.

Yes, the decision to provide military assistance but not boots on the ground was, as Congressman James Moran of Virginia said, “the best choice of worse options.” Moran voted against authorizing the Iraq war 12 years ago, but this time justified his vote saying, “It’s because there are no better alternatives and I don’t think it’s responsible to do nothing.”

Yes, the political allies with whom we will be conducting this effort to degrade and defeat ISIS all bring their own liabilities to the table. The Saudis could scarcely be more repressive. The Iranians certainly hope our involvement in Syria deepens. The government in Iraq, such as it is, would prefer that we do all the heavy lifting. And, the Syrian rebels we intend to help remain more focused on defeating Assad, a worthwhile goal, than in taking on ISIS. But, allies always bring baggage. There is a reason that Churchill and Roosevelt in their correspondence often referred to deGaulle as “the bride” and that after the war Churchill opined that of all the crosses he had to bear during the war, the heaviest was the Cross of Lorraine.

Yes, we should have helped the Syrian rebels two or even three years ago. Instead, by doing nothing, we created a vacuum into which ISIS happily marched. Even last year, President Obama stepped on his own determination to take on Assad and then Congress showed that fecklessness was not limited to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. They share in the responsibility for the current conundrum as much as Obama.

Yes, we are stuck with a thoroughly ineffectual United Nations, unable to find the political, diplomatic or military tools to combat obvious threats to civilization. Might things have been different if, as Churchill suggested, the UN’s first line of action rested on regional councils, instead of an unwieldy all-nations assembly? If, over the past 70 years, these regional councils had brought different regimes together on a regular basis, might there be a local consensus to take action against a threat like ISIS?

Yes, we are also stuck with nation-states that are not nation-states, countries whose boundaries are lines in the sand drawn by the Brits at the end of World War I with a keen attention to the monarchical claims and aspirations of a few self-appointed leaders. As I said before, defending those boundaries is not worth a single life, American or otherwise.

But, we can’t stand by and do nothing while innocents are beheaded and crucified. Morally and strategically, the United States must be in the vanguard of those countries and peoples willing to stand up to such atrocities. Decency requires it, no matter the fact that we botched the last war in Iraq, no matter the fact that our hands are not clean, no matter the fact that there are no good options.

People complain, with some justification, that it would help if Obama was more clear in articulating our strategic aims. But, clarity, better to say the desire for clarity, can deceive as well as enlighten. The situation is not clear at all and trying to impose clarity upon it, which is a fair characterization of the approach George W. Bush took, can lead one to disaster. There is an American cast of mind that demands clarity even when it is not available. In his World War II memoirs, Churchill wrote these words which I had occasion to read and send to a friend yesterday:

At Washington intense activity reigned. During these days of continuous contact and discussion, I gathered that the President with his staff and his advisers were preparing an important proposal for me. In the military as in the commercial and production spheres the American mind runs naturally to broad, sweeping, logical conclusions on the largest scale. It is on these that they build their practical thought and action. They feel that once the foundation has been planned on true and comprehensive lines all other stages will follow naturally and almost inevitably. The British mind does not work quite in this way. We do not think that logic and clear-cut principles are necessarily the sole keys to what ought to be done in swiftly changing and indefinable situations. In war particularly we assign a larger importance to opportunism and improvisation, seeking rather to live and conquer in accordance with the unfolding event than to aspire to dominate it often by fundamental decisions. There is room for much argument about both views. The difference is one of emphasis, but it is deep-seated.

In the current situation, Obama is thinking more like a Brit than an American, and he is right to do so, but the political climate, rooted deeply in this American cast of mind, recoils. Obama should read and ponder this paragraph of Churchill’s and find ways to explain that now may not be the time for a “fundamental decision” capable of dominating the unfolding event. It is a time for improvisation and opportunism.

One of the reasons there are no silver bullets to the conundrums we face in the Middle East is that every action provokes a counter-reaction. Clearly, President Obama is trying to re-assure the American people that he will not commit ground troops to this fight. His critics rightly note that it is foolish to rule out future avenues of action that might not seem needed now but which might become needed in the future. But, Obama should listen to Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine who noted why U.S. ground troops should not, at this time, be considered an option. Kaine, who plans on voting for the authorization the House passed yesterday, said that any U.S. effort would be doomed to fail if we did not have the support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground. “If they won’t participate and carry the ground campaign, there’s no amount of U.S. or Western troops that will enable this mission to be successful,” Kaine told the Washington Post. He might have added that ISIS would love nothing better than to see a massive infusion of U.S. ground troops. They are goading us with their gruesome infomercials of beheadings. They know that they have no better recruiting tool than U.S. troops on the ground. That is one reason we should put enormous pressure on our Arab allies to carry much of the burden. Fellow Muslims in the line of battle will help keep this from being seen as a Holy War.

The most important thing the United States must do is to cultivate and strengthen moderate Muslims in the Arab world. Given the choices, given the utter failure of the Arab Spring, given the appeal of ISIS to hopeless populations, we must do more to strengthen those Arab regimes that are willing to confront ISIS. There are distinctions that must still be made. The relatively moderate repressions of the regime in Cairo we can tolerate while the repressions of Assad, which constitute war crimes, we cannot. The Iraqi government must still become more inclusive and, yes, we Christians who are rightly concerned about secularization in the West should hope for a healthy dose of secularism in the societies of the Mideast. The vote in the House does not start us down a clear path to any kind of victory. But, it is a step forward. Mindful of the caveats, aware of the limits, attentive to the series of moral compromises that await us as we form regional alliances, we should not be afraid to walk down this path. 


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